April 3, 2017, update: The AIA and other real estate organizations have sent a letter to Congress, asking its appropriators to preserve funding for the Energy Star program for business and economic reasons.
A leaked memo obtained by The Washington Post and other media organizations shows President Donald Trump’s administration may seek deep cuts to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that would slash its annual budget by 24 percent, from $8.2 billion to $6.1 billion, and reduce its staff by about 20 percent, or 3,000 jobs.
It would also potentially eliminate dozens of programs that pertain to the built environment, including Energy Star and WaterSense, an EPA partnership program for houses, products, and services using 20 percent less water than a baseline. Ending these programs could, for starters, reduce market incentives to construct more efficient buildings.
The reported budget, if formally proposed, would need approval from Congress, where it would likely face opposition from members of both parties. The Trump administration would not confirm or comment on the cuts outlined in the document obtained by the Post. EPA spokeswoman Julia Valentine says the agency is not commenting “at this early stage in the process.”
It is indeed early in the course of gamesmanship and political theater that accompany budget negotiations, says Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate and energy program. “It’s not like they get to decide by fiat,” she says. “This is not the version that’s going to pass.”
Yet, she adds, these early indications of potentially severe cuts to environmental programs are surfacing as EPA administrator Scott Pruitt hires people who dismiss the fundamental science behind climate change. “We take all this very seriously because it signals that key agency heads don’t understand the mission of what these agencies do,” Cleetus says. “The fact that decisions are being made by people denying basic science is very, very troubling.”
On March 9, Pruitt told CNBC he “would not agree” with the established science that shows carbon dioxide is a “primary contributor” to climate change. That puts Pruitt at odds with the overwhelming majority of the world’s scientists, including 97 percent of publishing climate scientists and the official statements of his own agency.
For Matt Noblett, AIA, a partner at Behnisch Architekten in Boston, threats of cuts to the EPA are discouraging. But, he says, municipal and state governments tend to play a bigger role in architecture and development than federal policy. Behnisch primarily works in coastal cities, he says, where the impact of a conservative federal government is balanced out by progressive local leadership. “I’m at the moment kind of sanguine about it,” Noblett says. “This just means we’re not going to get much guidance or leadership from this administration.”
The possibility of cuts to the efficiency standards Energy Star and WaterSense does worry Ryan Colker, director of the National Institute of Building Sciences. “Energy Star and WaterSense are easy targets because they’re voluntary programs,” he says. “They may be seen as things that can be picked up in the private sector. And having Energy Star ultimately be a tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions … puts it in the spotlight.”
The EPA budget allocated to the Energy Star program is reportedly about $50 million (with an additional $7 million from the U.S. Department of Energy), but its impact is far greater: The Obama administration estimated it has helped save $34 billion in electricity costs for building owners and tenants—businesses and consumers—in 2015 alone. That means there’s an economic argument for saving Energy Star, WaterSense, and other voluntary efficiency programs that could resonate with an administration promising to be business friendly, Colker says.
“For most businesses, energy is an expense that doesn’t provide a whole lot of value to the company as a whole,” he says. “So if we’re really talking about advancing businesses and unlocking capital, I think that’s certainly a valuable benefit for industry.”
The Trump administration plans to release its official budget proposal this week.
Note: This article has been updated since first publication.